Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step


January 23, 2010

How Not To Make an Efficient House in 13 Years

Category: Energy Audit,Household,Save Fuel,Take Actions – Tom Harrison – 10:46 pm

A while back, I had started a project of insulating the heating pipes that run through my basement — we have an old house that was designed for a gravity-fed hot water heating system — iron pipes and big old radiators.

Unlike a modern system, using copper pipe that run through baseboard radiators, we have a system that appears to be one step beyond the old steam-heat systems: big, heavy cast-iron radiators that take up a lot of space; and big, heavy cast-iron piping that runs through the basement and upon which I regularly knock my noggin.

Insulating my pipes was, to use an indelicate expression, like pissing in the wind. Or at least it was then. Today, I finished that job. But it took 13 years — insulating my heating pipes was probably the only thing I did that I should have done last. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Last Things First: Insulate the Pipes

We live in an old house — 1920’s era, nothing fancy — small and rather plain. Back in those days, it had a modern heating system — not an old coal-fired steam system, nope, this house had hot water heat. Well, that was fancy! But it doesn’t make for a great basement, since the hot water pipes get in the way.

The pipes have to be low in places, since the system was initially designed as a gravity feed system — hotter water is lighter, so the pipes are all arranged so the outgoing lines are higher than the return lines. The burner heats water and it tends to flow through the pipes, through radiators, and as it cools, it gets heavier and rolls back down into the boiler to get heated again.

There’s a reason these systems were replaced — they only work if your boiler is firing pretty much any time it’s cold. When we moved in here in 1997, little had been done — the boiler was a 1940’s era gas burner; huge and inefficient. On our first or second winter, it was so cold during January that it ran continuously and still couldn’t keep parts of the house above 55°.

And that first winter we couldn’t keep the house warm. I realized it was freezing cold in the basement, and by the time the water got to the radiators, especially the ones at the end of the loop, it was tepid, at best. So I bought some rolls of insulating tape — foil on the outside, some foam, and adhesive that made it stick to the pipes. For several weekends, I diligently wrapped pipes — starting with the outgoing pipes. I must have bought 30 rolls of tape before I called it good enough, but I figured that might help a little bit. It didn’t.

Insulate The House, Of Course! (Not)

Not really realizing what was wrong, we figured the house was uninsulated (we were right) and had blown-in insulation installed the following summer. They removed the clapboard siding, drilled holes in the board (no plywood in 1920’s) siding, blew in cellulose, plugged the holes with styrofoam, and replaced the siding.

Of course in this process they broke many of the clapboards, and broke any seal that 80 years of paint jobs had created. And, as we subsequently learned in our energy audit, they didn’t realize that before plywood was created, houses needed diagonal wind-braces in the corners in order to prevent the walls from “racking”. So they missed part of pretty much every corner on both floors.

Next winter, we still couldn’t keep the house warm … in fact, it might have been worse. (In retrospect, it probably was: the insulators broke air seals in a number of different ways, so cold wind was probably blowing right past that insulation). At the time, our son was a toddler, and he tested positive for lead paint (on the skin-prick test — blood was fine), but it made us research lead, and we learned that old windows are one of the biggest source of lead dust, since the sashes move up and down and disperse paint particles into the air.

The windows sucked anyway, so we got them replaced with high-quality Pella, double-insulated windows.

Replace The Windows, Of Course! (Not)

The windows are excellent, and still working nicely, but again, we only learned much later how poorly they were installed. The old windows they replaced had iron sash weights and cords that (theoretically) made the window sashes easier to open. But when the replacement windows were installed, they failed to do anything to insulate or seal these cavities, leaving us with relatively efficient windows, surrounded by wood hollow wood frames.

Next winter, we still couldn’t keep the house warm … in fact, it might have been worse. Now we had the combined effect of the cracked and broken clapboards, letting air into the uninsulated cavities surrounding our high-tech windows. I think I realized that fall, that if you put your hand near any window, you could feel a breeze coming in the house.

So I got a bunch of caulk and went around outside and did my best to caulk the holes around the windows. But we realized the burner was still running almost all the time during the cold part of the winter.

Replace The Furnace, Of Course! (Not)

That summer, we had the house painted (finally covering up the scars left by the insulators), and also re-sealing the corners and other joints that were broken. We also sucked it up and had a new gas burner installed — far, far more efficient, and the installer added circulator pumps that forced the water around, rather than letting gravity to the job. Also, the new system had some ball-valves we could use to adjust the amount of flow to a couple of different pipe circuits. These changes made it possible to heat the house so it was warm and mostly rooms were about the same temperature.

Next winter, we were able to heat the house, as long as we had the heat on most of the time. It wasn’t so much that the house was more efficient, just that the new burner could use the gas it did burn to more effectively get heat into the house. It didn’t stay in the house for long, but at least we weren’t freezing all the time.

So by now we had insulated, replaced windows, caulked outside, replaced the boiler and upgraded the heating system. But the house was still drafty, and very costly to heat.

Warm Now, But Expensive Still

We added some insulating shades. We had part of the basement finished, and replaced some of the old windows. We insulated much of the floor under the unfinished parts of the first floor. Several years back, we had the ceiling over the sun-room insulated. And I realized there was still some air leakage around the windows (I could feel it with my hand), which I caulked.

The house was tighter, and we were able to get a programmable thermostat. But I still had to set the heat to go on at 4:30am in order to have the house relatively warm by 7 in the morning, and, then again in the mid-afternoon so it was warm again by the time we got home from work. But at least we were in control, and a couple years ago, we saw our fuel consumption actually fall, but only a little. Hrrm.

The Epiphany: Learn What The Problem Is, Then Solve It

Finally, last spring, we did what we should have done in 1997 when we moved in: we had an energy audit. After everything I had done (and paid big money for), we learned that some of the biggest causes of heat loss were ones that had existed when we bought the house, and that I could have fixed with a properly aimed caulking gun, and others were obvious and simple.

That steel bulkhead door to our basement — yeah, the one that leaks and you can see light through — it also leaked air. The whole house fan that allows us to avoid air conditioning in the summer — yeah the big hole punched through to the icy cold attic — it leaked air. The chimney leaked air. And despite all of my valiant caulking efforts, the window frames still leaked live sieves. And the remaining old basement windows which we never open, may as well be open, now that we know how much air they let in. And the sill of the house (the one that let all the ants in the house every Spring) leaked air. And on, and on. And yes, the original insulation missed a bunch of spots where the wind braces are.

The energy audit showed us in black and white (actually red = warm, blue = cold) exactly what was working and what needed fixing. These were the main problems the house had when we bought it.

Energy Audit: Why Are They Not Required By Law?

We have now fixed most of what needs fixing (at a far, far lower cost than the windows, boiler, original insulation and other fixes), and a re-audit confirmed most of what we did had worked. And we have re-programmed the thermostat to come on much later and for a shorter time. And our fuel usage, and heating bill has fallen dramatically.

Now have a far tighter, far more comfortable house.

Would we have needed to replace windows and the boiler, and insulate? Yes, we would have. But what we have only just realized is that most of those expenses were wasted until we did the basic air sealing that keeps cold air from blowing away any heat you add or try to keep in through other means. We had 10 or so years of living in an inefficient, drafty, uncomfortable, expensive, and wasteful house.

Last Things Last

So today, I finished a job I started 13 years ago. Now, having fixed the major problems, in almost exactly the opposite order that we should have, it made sense for me to buy a little more pipe insulation and make the house just a bit more efficient.

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